Brenton Hamilton’s photos do not look like photos, at least not the kind that modern viewers are accustomed to seeing.
A modest fellow whose influence and impact on other photographers working in Maine grows generationally, Hamilton is showing two decades of work in an exhibition at the University of Maine Museum of Art in Bangor. “20 Years” is on view through May 6.
Hamilton’s photos are unconventional, so much so that many people don’t realize they are looking at photographs. His layered images reveal a painterly approach, as he uses 19th-century processes to achieve his vision.
“I don’t want to be a process artist so much, but the materials let me tell my story,” said Hamilton, who chairs the professional certificate program in photography at Maine Media Workshops in Rockport. “Despite the rise of technology in the medium, photography and all of its foundations are still incredibly exciting. I have arrived at a circumstance where I have found materials that allow me to have the perfect pitch, in that I get to make photographs that have surfaces that are frequently painterly. The materials allow me to make the kind of images that are in my imagination.”
Hamilton practices a range of historic processes, including cyanotype, black glass ambrotype, tintype and gum bichromate. His images are inspired by his interest in cultural history, sciences, early medicine, minerals and oceanology, said museum director and curator George Kinghorn.
“He takes you on a journey dating back to 1840s, really,” Kinghorn said. “He is employing these early photographic processes, but the images are very much contemporary.”
Kinghorn includes more than 50 images in the exhibition, as well as source material that Hamilton uses in his studio, including sculpted heads and other props that are displayed on shelves.
A mid-career retrospective, “20 Years” is the largest exhibition of Hamilton’s work, Kinghorn said. These are the kinds of exhibitions the curator most enjoys presenting, because they feature established artists whose work is respected in art circles but less known among the general public. It’s an opportunity to champion an artist whose commitment over time has earned him distinction, Kinghorn said.
“We like to bring to the forefront significant artists in Maine and outside Maine,” Kinghorn said. “He is such a thoughtful artist and a treasure in Maine.”
Hamilton is a homegrown talent. He grew up in Freeport and Falmouth, and right out of high school enrolled in a certificate program at what was then the Maine Photographic Workshops. He worked with a photographer named Craig Stevens, who still teaches at the workshops. Stevens showed Hamilton old-world printing techniques, and, as Hamilton says, “I never looked back.”
After earning his master’s from the Savannah College of Art and Design, he returned to Maine and his dreamlike visions inspired by science, nature and the landscape of the coast.
While not looking back, Hamilton also did not stand still. He continued to experiment with his processes and developed his practice around a hybrid of photographic and painterly techniques that are based on the tradition of using chemicals to create images on light-sensitive paper.
Coming home to Maine after college was the smartest decision he ever made, he said. He went to work right away at the workshops, where he has taught for 25 years. Just as important, Maine opened up his imagination.
“It allowed me to make up a world,” he said. “I’m driven to do this. I can’t seem to stop, and I don’t want to and don’t intend to.”
WHERE: University of Maine Museum of Art, 40 Harlow St., Bangor
WHEN: On view through May 6; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday